The number of grants of probate issued to solicitors has dropped significantly. The latest figures from the probate office show that 56% of all grants were issued to private individuals in 2011. This is a massive increase on 2010, when just 36% were personal applications.
Many probate practitioners are of the view that these figures do not accurately reflect the real picture. Just because someone applies for probate individually, doesn’t mean they haven’t had legal advice or sought professional assistance. It is not uncommon for people to employ the use of a solicitor after probate has been obtained to ensure that their executors’ duties are carried out correctly, saving them the time. An estate administration service may include closing bank accounts, informing utility companies, maintaining a set of accounts for the estate and even the sale of property. This can simply be too time-consuming for an executor to fit into their busy life.
The fall in the number of people who use a professional to apply for probate began in 2006. This indicates a direct correlation with the start of the recession. Falling property prices are a likely contributing factor in the decline of solicitor probate applications. This has resulted in fewer estates being valued above the threshold. Similarly, there has been a reduction in more complex estates where inheritance tax is due. Perhaps, individuals feel more confident about DIY probate when there’s no necessity to complete a full inheritance tax return and deal with HMRC.
The internet has also led to the availability of downloadable DIY probate kits. These empower the executor to take matters into their own hands rather than being reliant on a legal practitioner. Doing-it-yourself enables you to save money on probate fees. However, it is only recommended in straightforward cases, with uncomplicated estates. Mistakes can be costly and executors can be held personally liable. Common problems include; undervaluing the estate, under paying tax or failing to trace missing heirs.
The Probate Service states that it includes solicitors, notaries or barristers in its statistics. However, it is not necessary to be a fully qualified solicitor to offer professional probate services. It is not clear whether figures include applications made by professional practitioners who are not actually firms of solicitors. Therefore, whether these percentages are a true reflection of the rise in DIY probate is questionable.
The continued negative publicity of the probate fees charged by some banks and solicitors could account for the decline in the uptake of their services. The practice of charging percentage fees based on estate value, is becoming archaic. Solicitors, who traditionally charge an hourly rate will not necessarily be competitive in today’s marketplace. More people are choosing low-cost, fixed fee probate services offered by specialist practitioners. These may not be included in the figures released by HM Courts and Tribunals Service.
For more information visit the HMCTS Probate Service.